cover image Fall of the Phantom Lord: Confronting Fear and Risking It All on the Sheer Face of the Rock

Fall of the Phantom Lord: Confronting Fear and Risking It All on the Sheer Face of the Rock

Andrew Todhunter, Author Doubleday Books $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-385-48641-5

A ""fledgling alpinist"" who writes on extreme sports for the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, Todhunter set out in the mid 1990s to explore a tiny culture of rock climbers who choreograph free falls from dangerously high places. At its center was Dan Osman, a world-class climber who holds the record for free-falling and whose personality yields few handholds. Todhunter nevertheless manages to weave a complex story around this elusive subject, blending accounts of climbing with Osman in varied terrain with other travel and high-altitude memories while giving vent to his own conflicted feelings about the danger of such activities. When Todhunter undertakes a free fall from a 100-foot cliff supported only by climbing gear, he finds that ""a part of me had not survived the jump, as if something small and shameful had remained behind... for a short while I had a glimpse of what it meant to be free."" But as he and his wife contemplate having a child, he asks himself: ""At what point... do statistically hazardous, entirely elective pastimes become unethical?"" Although Todhunter's determination to get to the heart of his subjects' passion is well articulated, it is not contagious. At times, the book is redeemed by its crisp reportage and the author's empathetic self-questioning. But in too many moments--as when he explains the entire climbing rating system or aborts an attempt at the summit of California's Mount Shasta--Todhunter's narrative loses so much velocity that, ultimately, it may fail to hook even the armchair mountaineer. (Aug.)